The Neurochemical Path to Burnout and Breakdown

The following is an excerpt of a chapter from my latest book, Radical Brilliance. Enjoy!

As we discussed previously, the longer you stay a state of productivity, the longer you find yourself faced with impossible choices, which we called a “double bind.”

Daniel Schmachtenberger, founder of Neurohacker, explains: “We stay in productivity, running on noradrenaline for as long as we can, but finally this buildup of stress fires the amygdala, the alarm system in the brain. Subjectively, this means there are no more creative ideas, we feel mentally and physically exhausted. This phase of breakdown is characterized by decreased energy systems in the body, specifically decreased ATP output. In this breakdown phase, studies show blood sugar instability, and many other factors related to decreased cellular energy production (in the brain as well as other organs), increased ACTH, and increased cortisol-to-DHEA ratio. These are also the symptoms of the different phases associated with adrenal burnout. Subjectively, we also experience insufficient memory consolidation, symptomatic of the buildup of insufficient deep sleep. The body and the brain are out of balance.”

Once the results of this kind of intense focused activity build up too much, the brain and body can quickly and suddenly flip from sympathetic to parasympathetic dominance. You repress messages from the body, tuning out aching, the need to go to the bathroom or to go to sleep. When it kicks over, we experience what is known as “parasympathetic flooding.” Now the messages (often of complaint!) from the body, emotions, and intuition come flooding back, with a vengeance.

Some of the best work on this rebalancing from sympathetic to parasympathetic dominance has been done at HeartMath Research Institute, in Santa Cruz, California. HeartMath Inc. CEO Deborah Rozman tells me, “People often push aside a voice inside themselves that has been telling them what is the healthy thing to do. Then the mind gives up, because there’s nothing more it can do. It cannot solve the problem, and it knows it. There is a surrender of the mind. When there is no place else to go, people finally go to their heart for answers. Some call it the still small voice. We have to be quiet enough to listen. We start to connect with the intuitive guidance of the heart, the intelligence of the heart. It’s always there, but we may have ignored it or pushed it aside out of ambition, or another kind of drive.”

The key metric HeartMath uses to measure the interaction of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system is the “Heart Rate Variability Pattern.” The heart rate actually varies with every heartbeat and plotting the heart rate variation over time reveals a Pattern.  Frustration, anxiety, anger and other stressful emotions create a chaotic HRV Pattern.  Genuine feelings of love, care, gratitude and other warm-hearted emotions create a smooth and ordered HRV Pattern generating a coherent waveform. HeartMath has created an HRV sensor and smartphone app called the Inner Balance™ that helps you self-regulate your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and shift into a state of inner balance and positive feeling. By seeing your HRV Pattern displayed in the app on your phone, with extraordinary real time accuracy and sensitivity, you can, within minutes learn to create more coherence in your HRV pattern consciously.

This study of the intelligence of the heart has increasing validation in modern science. The vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the heart and the gut, is one of the primary pathways of parasympathetic activation in the brain. Travis explains that scientists used to think that this was all about the brain telling the heart and the  gut what to do, “but now,” he says, “we are finding that 95% of the traffic is coming the other way: the intelligence of the gut and heart is communicating to the brain. The digestive system has just as many brain chemicals in it as the brain itself. The ‘enteric’ nervous system in the gut has more cells than are in the spinal cord.”

As we move from productivity to breakdown and dissolution, the scientists I interviewed referenced an increase in the natural secretion of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain, which causes us to subjectively feel safe, innocent, and allows us to relax enough for repair to happen in the brain and nervous system. The longer we stay in rest and recovery, feeling safe and cozy the more opportunity our body has to accumulate serotonin in the pre-synaptic nuclei, which prepares us for the movement to new moments of awakening.

What Moments of Awakening Do to Rewire the Brain

Dr. Fred Travis, the director of the Center for Brain Consciousness and Cognition at the Maharishi University of Management in Iowa, emphasizes, “I hope you can bring out in your book the importance of what moments of awakening do to rewire the brain. It’s not just that these glimpses of limitless consciousness happen and then disappear, they are continuously happening. The more frequently we visit awakening states of consciousness, [the more] our actions cease to be determined by the individual level of learning and experience and desires, and become driven by the needs of the whole world. So the phases of the [Radical Brilliance] cycle unfold in sequence, but everything is also there simultaneously supporting the next step.”

Schmachtenberger explains that one of the unique things about human genetics compared to other primates is our radical neural plasticity: the capacity to be soft-wired based on our environment rather than genetically hard-wired. “This means we are highly adaptive to changing environmental stimuli. We are also able to rewire the way that our brain works according to changing circumstances. This relates not only to how we process nutrients, how we process pathogens and toxins, but also how we process information.”

Consequently, the more we move through the Radical Brilliance cycle on a regular basis, we are not only cycling through a repeating set of conditions in the brain, we are also rewiring the brain. This kind of evolutionary neural plasticity turns the cycle into a spiral of evolutionary brilliance.


Want to learn more about the Radical Brilliance cycle? You can read more excerpts from the book on my website, or grab a copy of the book here.


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Distress or Chronic Stress

Distress or chronic stress is uncontrollable, prolonged, or overwhelming stress. Once stress becomes distress, the body manages to survive though not always to thrive. For example, when faced with periods of chronic stress, the body’s immune system function is lowered, and the digestive, excretory, and reproductive systems no longer function the way they should. In a state of distress, the cells of the immune system (and other body systems) are unable to respond normally and produce levels of inflammation which increase the risk of further health issues.


Homeostasis refers to your body’s ability to regulate itself and maintain a comparatively stable internal environment despite external and internal conditions and events.

Your body is designed to be in a state of homeostasis, where all the systems within are functioning optimally.


Stressor is anything that is perceived by the body as challenging, threatening or demanding.

Health Story

In the context of My Wellbeing Compass, your “Health Story” represents the combination of your dis-eases, conditions, symptoms and the history that binds them together. It is multi-layered and multi-dimensional. Unearthing and resolving the root causes at the core of your Health Story is the only way to truly rewrite this Story.

Natural Self-repair Mechanisms

The body is made up of intelligent, living cells that are dynamically connected. They communicate and just know what to do and when to do it in any given situation. They grow, replicate, repair, and age. Every 90 days, the body has a new bloodstream; every year, it manufactures billions of new cells; colon cells refresh every 4 days; the skin is entirely regenerated every 2-3 weeks; white blood cells regenerate in about 1 year; the liver renews itself at least once every 2 years; and the skeleton replaces its cells entirely every 10 years.

You are an incredibly complex, interactive, and dynamic living organism that is well-equipped with self-repair mechanisms that can fight infections, eliminate toxins, fix damaged DNA, destroy cancer cells, and even slow down aging.

This natural self-healing ability (also referred to as cellular intelligence or body’s innate intelligence) explains spontaneous remissions from seemingly “incurable” diseases.


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